Although the American crime film has steadily fallen victim to Hollywood’s global franchise model as adult orientated fare is squeezed out of a studio system in pursuit of four quadrant blockbusters, genre aficionados are still being well served by Asian cinema, which has no shortage of taut noir narratives. 2014’s standouts were arguably Diao Yi’nan’s award-winning Black Coal, Thin Ice and Kim Seong-hung’s fiendishly entertaining A Hard Day while this year’s must-see is Cao Baoping’s compelling The Dead End which pivots its machinations on an unsolved crime that continues to haunt its perpetrators and principal investigator seven years later.
In a black-and-white establishing sequence, three friends – Xiaofeng (Deng Chao), Zidao (Guo Tao), and Bijue (Gao Hu) – are seen fleeing from a remote mansion in Xilong where a family of five has been murdered, and a young woman has been raped before meeting her untimely demise. Jumping forward in time, Xiaofeng and Zidao have relocated to the seaside city of Xiamen where the former is hiding in plan sight by working as an auxiliary police detective while Zidao has become a taxi driver. Meanwhile, the mentally impaired Bijue resides at a quiet fishing village where he takes care of Tail (Xu Xihan), the daughter of the raped victim in a quest for redemption that suggests there may be more to the circumstances surrounding the crime than initially meets the eye. Although they have succeeded in lying low for some time, the past catches up with them in the form of Xiaofeng’s new chief Guchun (Duan Yihong) who led the failed investigation and has never given up on apprehending the killers.
A tough but fair leader, the dogged Guchun’s curiosity is piqued by Xiaofeng, who demonstrates considerable bravery despite his sometimes jittery, evasive nature and lack of ambition to make a real career in the police force. Through a series of on-the-job conversations, during which time Guchun notes connections between Xiaofeng’s behavioral tics and evidence at the Xilong crime scene, the chief begins to suspect that his colleague may indeed be his quarry. Xiaofeng and Zidao decide that it’s time to skip town, but unanticipated developments keep them in Xiamen: Tail is diagnosed with an illness that requires expensive medical treatment, and Zidao also turns up on Guchun’s radar when he comes to the aid of the chief’s sister Guxia (May Wang) when her handbag is stolen.
Working from Xu Yigua’s novel Sunspots, Cao has crafted a neo-noir that is often heavy on contrivance, but nonetheless exerts considerable grip thanks to the director’s mostly successful juggling of multiple plot threads and the forceful performances of the main players. Tightly edited to Bai Shui’s nervy electronic score, the film could be summarized as a game of cat and mouse, but actually occupies more interesting moral territory because of the time spent observing the mutual respect that develops between Xiaofeng and Guchun. In a supremely tense scene that occurs relatively early in the lengthy 140 minute running time, Guchun reflects on the Xilong case while he and Xiaofeng drive along a country road – the former suddenly realizes that he may be discussing the crime with one of the killers while Cao accentuates shared anxiety with tight angles and the increasingly claustrophobic vehicle interior. Yet rather than launching an investigation to bring Xiaofeng to justice, Guchun’s admiration for the younger man’s dedication to his often dangerous work in spite of his professional situation – auxiliary officers only earn a fifth of a fully-fledged police officer’s salary yet share the same risks – prompts him to consider how such a seemingly upstanding individual could have been involved in the horrific Xilong slaughter.
Cao balances this intense interpersonal drama with episodic policing incidents, some of which result in further twists or red herrings, such as Xiaofeng preventing a suicidal Taiwanese resort designer (Jackie Lui) from leaping to his death from a high rise apartment. The director also pulls off a bravura set piece on the top of a skyscraper with the police chasing a criminal gang by crossing precarious ledges and beams, inducing vertigo in the viewer with a clever use of modern architecture and Xiamen’s skyline. Superbly staged with personal dilemmas playing out during an operation that rapidly spirals out of control, it’s the kind of action sequence that one would expect to see in a South Korean film, minus the brutality, and recalls the use of cityscape in genre touchstone Infernal Affairs (2002) of even the work of Michael Mann. At street level, Cao provides a strong sense of the Xiamen milieu that mixes teeming urbanized zones with areas on the outskirts – an early scene has Zidao being robbed at knifepoint by his passengers on a country road during torrential rainfall, while Xiaofeng and Zidao try to keep a low-profile by residing in the basement apartment of an off the track residence shrouded by nature.
The densely convoluted plotting means that proceedings can get a bit unwieldy at times, especially in the extended coda that aims not only to explain everything but, as is required by China’s censorship restraints, ensure that all the protagonists are painted in the best possible light as responsible or redeemable citizens. Cao’s earlier thriller The Equation of Love and Death (2008) had to use the same wrap-up device, but had a leaner narrative that required less backtracking. A further state-related problem is the absence of Bijue, who should be a main character but is only glimpsed briefly as most of actor Gao’s scenes were deleted following his arrest for drug possession in August 2014. Fortunately, re-editing by Cao and Li Yongyi manages to shift the dynamic from the trio to emphasize the loyal partnership between Xiaofeng and Guchun as they strive to cover Tail’s operation costs in low-income jobs.
Aside from Gao’s conviction, The Dead End has become a hot potato in its home territory because of its occasionally gruesome subject matter and a taboo-breaking subplot involving the homosexuality of one of the main characters. After several delays, it’s received a wide theatrical release but has had its commercial prospects undermined by being allocated a slot coinciding with the massive military parade to commemorate the end of the World War II, putting Cao’s moral quagmires severely at odds with a national culture caught in the throes of propagandist fervor. Comparison with the supportive establishment response to Black Coal, Thin Ice last year serve to show how the politics of China’s mainstream film industry are in a constant state of flux.
It is hoped that such setbacks will not impede the film’s export potential as The Dead End is a consistently involving, sometimes sweat-inducing thriller that will satisfy genre fans while further enhancing Cao’s international standing following the festival acclaim of his drama Einstein and Einstein (2013).